Thursday 21 November 2013

Berwick Barracks: a facility soon to be needed again?

This is the main courtyard, or parade ground, or whatever they call it, of Berwick Barracks. Complete with original old cannon. The barracks are of architectural importance as they were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, on a short vacation from building London churches, and are apparently a rare example of purpose built barracks continuing in use for that original purpose from the 18th century until modern times. The last soldiers only moved out in the 1960s. They were members of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, Berwick's local regiment, even though Berwick is in the English and not the Scottish Borders. Anyone who's been following this blog will not be surprised by that characteristic Berwick anomaly.

So there is now a rather splendid chunk of 18th century architecture sitting there seriously under-used. A small proportion of the buildings houses three museums: of the town's own history, of the regiment, and the one containing a portion of the Burrell collection, better known from the much larger portion in Glasgow. All of these are theoretically free to enter but you can't get into them without paying the English Heritage admission fee for the barracks complex as a whole. To add insult to injury English Heritage is now refusing to open at weekends, thus making it impossible for any local residents who work office hours to visit their own museums. Well done, esteemed custodians of our cultural patrimony. As a very small compensation the barracks were open free to all over the weekend in September when the Heritage Open Doors event is held. I took these photos then, because I refuse as a matter of principle to pay a penny to English Heritage.

There has been some fairly lively discussion on suitable future uses for the buildings. A hotel seems the obvious one  And of course that large tarmac area just says 'car parking' to the typical Berwick mind-set. I though foresee a darker future for the barracks. They will make a perfect detention or internment camp for illegal immigrants, subjects of control orders on whom the authorities haven't managed to pin any actual crimes, or the new 'sturdy beggars', recipients of Jobseekers' Allowance who persist in being unable to find a job no matter how often the government tells them they jolly well ought to.

Some Scots believe that if Scottish independence becomes a reality the Westminster government will declare zones of English sovereignty around the nuclear submarine bases in their country. In that case they'll need somewhere on English territory to lock up stray Scots who wander into the exclusion zone. In all seriousness, if the political row over military bases continues down its present course things could turn very nasty. In that case we could see Berwick barracks being used once more for their original purpose, housing English soldiers in a location where they can advance across the border at a moment's notice.  Never mind being under-used, they'll probably have to build an extension.

Friday 15 November 2013

Remembrance Season

On 11th November the whole of Britain marks Armistice Day, the day on which the First World War ended.  It is now though more generally known as Remembrance Day and has become not just a day but at least a week of ceremonies to commemorate those who have died in all wars. Since the 11th is not often a Sunday there is always a debate about whether to hold the ceremony at the local war memorial on the nearest Sunday or on the 11th itself, and these days the dilemma is increasingly solved by doing both. Of course this new intensity is partly driven by the number of British soldiers who have met death or life-changing injury in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last twenty years.

To mark this season appropriately I am posting some photos of the war memorial in Alnwick.  Unlike the great majority of  towns whose inhabitants gather at artistically forgettable memorials the town of Alnwick in Northumberland is fortunate to possess quite a decent bit of public sculpture as its memorial.  It shows a soldier, a sailor and an airman standing in what I believe is known as the 'reversed arms' position. They stand out well against the clear sky of a cold November day.

This monument was sited in its present position at a time when the traffic was not nearly as heavy as it is today. Older locals say that the idea was to position it at the intersection of three roads, with one figure facing towards each road, as if they were standing guard over it. This is a nice idea and it works very well. Unfortunately it also causes a lot of confusion for drivers, because most of them can't work out whether it's a roundabout or not. (It's not.)  Periodically some heretical person tentatively suggests moving it into the adjacent public park, but such an outcry always ensues that the idea is dropped again for another few years.

There is no doubt that the level of public reverence for those who fought in the two world wars has increased greatly since my youth. When I was a child the conventional wisdom was that the ceremonies commemorating the armistice would simply fade away as the generation for whom they had personal significance died out. Instead the reverse has happened,with the veneration of those who fought in the world wars as 'heroes' increasing in inverse relation to the likelihood of knowing any of them personally.

Both of my grandfathers had distinguished military records and my mother was an 'army brat', so I feel I know something whereof I speak here. The men who fought in the world wars just wanted to get on with the more enjoyable parts of their lives afterwards and forget about the horrors they had witnessed. Those who survived long enough to become the object of persistent questioning interest from young people about 'what it was like' seem to have been uncomfortable with it. I am sure that both my grandfathers would have been. Not because they were being modest about their heroism - indeed my paternal grandfather seems to have exploited his gallantry medal quite effectively in his subsequent career in local politics - but because they were just plain sick of talking and thinking about it all.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Debatable Land On Tour 2013

You have noticed that this is not Berwick upon Tweed?  Go to the top of the class! I am in London for a few days. Once a year I permit myself to write a blog post from somewhere outside the Debatable Land musing on what I have learned about home by travelling elsewhere.

This photo shows the London Eye, of course, and the building which used to be the home of the Greater London Council but now houses a hotel and the London Aquarium. The GLC was abolished by the Thatcher government because at that time it was very left-wing. The Houses of Parliament are just across the river and the two rival powers used to glower at and spy on each other across the water.

As we move closer to the referendum on Scottish independence, this historical episode seems more relevant. Many Londoners resent the fact that Scotland, a country of five million people, has its own parliament and aspires to total independence, while Greater London, a region of around eight million people, depending on how exactly you define it, no longer even has its own regional council. I can see the logic of this, but on the other hand there are many countries in the world no larger than Scotland - all the Scandinavian ones for a start - whose right to a full parliament nobody disputes.

London does now have an elected Mayor though. In fact it has a Mayor (Boris Johnson) who is a prominent member of the Conservative party but has frequently annoyed the Westminster government by demonstrating a lamentable independence of mind and tendency to put the perceived interests of Londoners before the policy of the national party. This is what strong local government of any kind tends does. Local knowledge and local interests lead to conclusions that outsiders did not see coming.

This morning I had a conversation with a friend and a friend-of-a-friend in London which left me with my head in my hands despairing of the ignorance of the English about Scottish politics and the history of the United Kingdom. I am seriously thinking of writing An Idiot's Guide to the Scottish Independence Debate and selling it on this site. Watch this space. The people I was talking to said that the English are entitled to have a say on the future of the UK. Of course they are, and it would be nice if they ever showed any interest in the subject. Instead, having ignored the Scots for, oh, about three hundred years now, they are whinging that they ought to be able to vote on whether or not Scotland should be allowed to leave the Union. This betrays an ignorance of the fundamental founding principle of the United Kingdom, which was an agreement by two sovereign states to enter into political union. This implies that either party can choose to withdraw from it at any time, without needing the permission of the other.

Put it another way, would the residents of the banks of the Thames accept being told that they could not decide to leave the UK and form an independent city state, as a substantial proportion of them seem to fantasise about, without a majority poll in Scotland agreeing to it?  I don't think so.